The Pentagon calls them “low-intensity conflicts” and defines such operations as “limited politico-military struggles to achieve political, social, economic, or psychological objectives.” The public thinks of such conflicts as dirty little wars fought by intrepid men in snake-eater suits and with knives in their teeth. Regardless of the supermacho images stirred up by the term “low-intensity conflict,” it may well turn out to be the predominant form of warfare for the rest of this century.
Low-intensity conflict (LIC) is hardly a newcomer to the field of military operations and statecraft. Soviet Russia, clearly today’s master in the covert extension of politics into various regimes of violence—especially state-sponsored terrorism and wars of “liberation” fought by surrogate forces—arguably can trace its affinity for low-intensity conflict to one of its cultural progenitors, the Byzantine Empire.
The US, in spite of its general preference for aboveboard approaches to military operations, resorted to the use of “irregular forces” when the needs of the moment so indicated. During the Revolutionary War, an American patriot, Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” drove British forces to the brink of complete frustration because, as one contemporary account put it, “Marion would not come out and fight like a gentleman and a Christian.” During the Civil War, “Mosby’s Raiders” similarly bedeviled the Union Army. During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) fought or engineered a multitude of “dirty little wars” within the matrix of that global conflagration.
The Air Force’s involvement in unconventional warfare dates back to the Air Commandos of World War II, in particular the 1st Air Commando Group created on March 29, 1944, at Hailakandi, India. Called the “Burma Bridge Busters,” the air commandos made military history by providing fighter cover, air strikes, and airlift for Wingate’s Raiders, who operated behind the Japanese lines. Awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism, the group was disbanded after World War II. Resurrected in stages during the Southeast Asian war, the heirs of the Air Commandos eventually became the Military Airlift Command’s Twenty-third Air Force.
In the recent past, Soviet-sponsored insurgencies and the global outcropping of terrorism caused the Reagan Administration to direct major Pentagon emphasis on low-intensity conflict and the Special Operations Forces (SOFs) that often play a role in, but are not synonymous with, such warfare. The Defense Guidance of 1981 and in subsequent years, for instance, directed all the armed services to develop and hone their “special ops” capabilities.
In the wake of this directive, the Air Force’s so-called Innovative Task Force proposed, among other measures, the creation of a Center for Low-Intensity Conflict (CLIC). In February 1985, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force ordered the go-ahead, and in September of last year, he and his US Army counterpart, Gen. John A. Wickham, agreed to make the Center a joint Army/Air Force organization. The Center, located at Langley AFB, Va., is in line with a series of initiatives undertaken by the two services to foster joint force developments. The Center, which will probably be broadened by Navy and Marine Corps participation in the near future, may well serve as a catalyst for more comprehensive arrangements that will focus government-wide attention and resources on this form of warfare.
The Chief’s Views
USAF’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, at the occasion of the activation of the joint Low-Intensity Warfare Center (LIWC), acknowledged to this writer that “we have to do a better job of getting our arms around the LIC problem.” A big step in this direction, he added, is the joint organization “we have just set up with the Army at Langley AFB. The Center will examine LIC in an integrated way, focus on what has to be done, and look into how we can make the best use of the resources we have—including those capabilities designed specifically for special operations.”
He explained that the Center is also “the focal point to plan and program for the integration of future forces.” At the same time, General Gabriel cautioned against equating low-intensity conflict with SOF because “our Special Operations Forces are trained to fight at all levels of conflict, not just LIC.” The Chief of Staff added that, on the other hand, “LIC is much broader than the capabilities associated with the Special Operations Forces.”
By way of illustrating the diversity of LIC, he said that “we have been ‘countering threats’ to Saudi Arabian security since 1980 with four E-3A AWACS airplanes supported by KC-10 and KC-135 tankers. As Grenada showed, airdrop provided by C-130s and C-141s is a major capability in low-intensity warfare.”
Lastly, General Gabriel pointed out, “Security assistance programs have a big job to do in low-intensity conflict—they help friendly countries help themselves.” He described LIC as a “broad term used to characterize conflicts that occur below the threshold of theater warfare—everything from regional conflicts to guerrilla action and terrorism.” The military, he emphasized, “has a definite role in low-intensity conflict, but in many cases the nonmilitary instruments of national power take the front seat.”
Likely Reporting Channels
The new Center, USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations, Lt. Gen. Harley Hughes, told AIR FORCE Magazine, is headed by a director—a full colonel—who will be picked from the ranks of the Air Force or the Army on a rotational basis. Both services fully agree that the Director will be the head of the organization—staffed initially by fewer than thirty military and civilian personnel—not just in name but in fact, General Hughes stressed.
At this time, the two services have not yet decided on how to fit the Center into existing organizational structures. The predominant notion, however, is to have the new organization report routinely to a triumvirate of general officers—probably at the two-star level—from TAC, the Military Airlift Command (MAC), and TRADOC, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. But when called into action, the Center is likely to report to the CINCs (Commanders in Chief) involved in a given conflict and, through them, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hughes suggested. Nevertheless, there will be a secondary reporting channel from the Center to the service chiefs and their deputies for plans and operations, General Hughes said.
In setting up the new organization, the Air Force is concerned with potential misunderstandings about its purpose, according to General Hughes: “There is a tendency to see [its functions predominantly oriented] to counterterrorist activities.” That would be wrong, he asserted, because the capabilities and forces earmarked for LIC must also be made available to operations above the level of counterterrorist missions, which usually involve no more than thirty or forty troops. “We can’t afford to give the Special Operations Forces total attention under. . . LIC,” he emphasized.
He made it clear that LIC, by its very nature, is a “joint effort. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are in full agreement on this.” For that reason, he predicted that the other two services might join the CLIC “before 1987.” The Center’s ultimate success, he suggested, may also depend on how closely it can be tied to basic “deception doctrines” as well as to good intelligence “so as to place assets in a way that changes the local picture and, hence, can deter” incipient low-intensity aggression.
The establishment of the Center has neither ended the Pentagon’s struggles to identify what LIC is—and is not—nor the latent dissatisfaction in Congress and elsewhere with the level of attention paid by the services in the past to this type of warfare. In the first instance, General Hughes pointed out that “the more we examine the LIC issue, the more it becomes clear that to identify low-intensity conflict rigidly would be a mistake.” In looking at LIC in a historical context, the tendency now is to define all operations associated with the Vietnam War “prior to the North Vietnamese coming across the border in force” as a low-intensity conflict; after that watershed, the Southeast Asian war should be seen as a full-fledged theater conflict. In terms of looking ahead, US involvement in the Central American turmoil is likely to remain at the LIC level, even though several countries might be involved.
The Air Force elements of the new Center will be working closely with such existing organizations as USAF’s Office of History, the Tactical Air Warfare Center, the Special Operations School, the Airlift Center, the Air-Ground Operations School, the Combat Operations Staff, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), the MAC-TRADOC Airlift Concepts and Requirements Agency, and the General and Special Missions Operational Test and Evaluation Centers.
The Center also will maintain liaison with the Department of State, the United States Information Agency, the Agency for International Development, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Security Assistance Agency, among others. Envisioned initially as the Air Force’s and the Army’s—and eventually as the government’s—center of expertise for low-intensity conflict matters, the new organization is to assist other elements of the Pentagon in developing operational concepts, assessing current capabilities, identifying shortfalls, and recommending measures to improve this country’s ability to cope with low-intensity conflict.
Its mere existence is likely to bolster congressional and White House confidence in the Defense Department’s determination to come to grips with the thorny issue of counterterrorism and unconventional warfare. The main areas of concern that are being assigned to the Center are cadre formation, revolution, insurgency, terrorism, social conflict, civil war, guerrilla warfare, and surrogate forces.
Meeting the LIC/SOF Challenge
At least so far as the Air Force is concerned, there is a general acceptance of the proposition that the “money for a force structure optimally and uniquely tailored for LIC simply isn’t there.” It follows that the Air Force will have to make the most of existing forces and hardware. General Hughes said that “about ninety percent of what is needed for [effective LIC operations] in terms of weaponry exists in industry or in the combat services.” The central imperative, he added, is “modification of existing systems to enhance their utility for low-intensity conflict.”
But, he pointed out, aircraft modification takes time. Critics who claim that the Pentagon is tardy in responding to the LIC challenge need to be reminded that all services are stepping up their capabilities in this field and in the related area of special operations forces at a vigorous rate. Some initial increases in capability are just around the corner, and in a few years, when the full enhancement program reaches fruition, “we will have an extremely potent force.”
The Air Force alone plans to spend $2.9 billion on SOF modernization over the next five years. Key elements of the program are the acquisition of twenty-one MC-130H Combat Talon II aircraft by 1990 and the modernization of the MC-130Es, AC-130s, several types of helicopters, and associated HC-130 tankers. There is a rock-solid consensus that the C-17 inter/intratheater airlifter will be of crucial importance to this nation’s LIC and special ops capabilities in the future. The same is true for remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), whose contributions to unconventional warfare are great and growing.
The basic Air Force objective behind its SOF enhancement program, according to Maj. Gen. John M. Loh, the Air Staff’s Director of Operational Requirements, is “to increase our capability to provide concealment by underflying radars and air defenses in day, night, and through and under the weather; allow for terrain masking at very low altitudes to avoid detection; operate from short and in some cases unprepared strips; and do all of this with higher payloads, at longer ranges—reliably and safely.”
Further, he recently told the House Armed Services’ Readiness Subcommittee that USAF’s gunship force will soon have to be replaced to ensure its future effectiveness. Terming the MC-130H Combat Talon II “our most mature [LIC/SOF] program,” he said that of the planned twenty-one aircraft buy, five are in acquisition, and negotiations for two more are about to be completed. Initial problems encountered in the Combat Talon II’s radar development have been ironed out. Delivery of the initial five aircraft to the first operational unit experienced a one-year delay because of the need to stretch out the flight-test schedule, he told Congress.
Another LIC requirement brought out by General Hughes is Stealth technology: “There are more and more radars around the world—and more and more countries that can afford them, either with Soviet help or on their own. [As a result], our requirement for low [level flight penetration] and Stealth [in the LIC] context is growing.” The choice is between taking out these radars or getting close enough so that “they become inconsequential” operationally. On the other hand, the Stealth option, at least for the foreseeable future, probably is not available in the case of rotor or tilt-rotor vehicles, he suggested.
Over the longer term, the Bell-Boeing CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor design will be able to complement the MC-130 in deep “infiltration” and “exfiltration” missions, and thereby enhance this country’s LIC and SOF capabilities, according to General Hughes. This aircraft is capable of vertical and short takeoff and landing and thus can significantly reduce shortfalls in special operations airlift, especially in long-range exfiltration. The CV-22 can be tailored for LIC and SOF operations by the addition of extended-range fuel tanks, electronic countermeasures, and a dedicated terrain-following/terrain-avoidance radar. That radar is a derivative of the Air Force’s highly successful Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) system navigation pod.
The Air Force’s version of the CV-22 is to achieve initial operational capability (IOC) in FY ’94, when an initial batch of six airplanes is to enter the inventory. Range of this aircraft will be about 700 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 250 knots. Perceived by the Defense Department as a common vehicle to satisfy various mission requirements for all four services, this tilt-rotor design will be used by the Marine Corps for vertical-lift assault, by the Army for medium cargo lift, by the Navy for combat search and rescue, and by the Air Force mainly for special operations. Assuming a formal go-ahead decision on the program by the Defense Systems Acquisition Review Council (DSARC) early this year, 913 of these tilt-rotor aircraft will enter the US inventory in the 1990s. The Air Force plans to buy eighty CV-22s.
While basically allocated to USAF’s LIC missions, these hybrid designs that bridge the gap between helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft might also be used for combat rescue, as light intratheater transports and gunships, as well as for forward air control.
Overcoming Helicopter Shortfalls
For the near term, the Air Force also is modifying a total of nineteen HH-53s to a Pave Low III configuration (HH-53H) to overcome existing long-range-helicopter shortfalls. Also, a recent Air Force review of the SOF’s readiness status underscored the importance of enhancing the AC-130 gunships. The FY ’87 budget is likely to provide for the acquisition of eleven new gunships and the scrapping of the aging and unsupportable AC-130A gunships in the Reserves. Other initiatives that will benefit the special operations forces and LIC include the retrofit of additional electronic countermeasures and communications equipment, the modification of twenty additional HC-130s and six MC-130Es to a tanker configuration, and measures to increase the survivability of other SOF assets by means of retrofitting improved radar warning receivers and infrared countermeasure pods.
Lastly, relatively low-cost research and development efforts have been initiated by the Air Force, involving such diverse improvements as 40-mm armor-piercing rounds using tungsten fléchettes for gunships, night vision goggle head-up display devices, and a novel surface-to-air recovery system, called Project 46, that will enable individual Combat Talon aircraft to pick up teams of up to six troops in a single pass without landing.
The majority of low-intensity conflict scenarios suggests an overriding requirement for “smart weapons” that hold collateral damage to a minimum. In many instances of LIC operations, the enemy forces might be interspersed among neutral civilians that the US side would neither want to hurt nor antagonize. The agonizing dilemma of LIC missions is that often there are far more innocent “bystanders” than there are “bad guys.” It follows that only highly accurate weapons ought to be brought to bear, with near-surgical precision and on the basis of accurate and timely intelligence. Because of these delicate circumstances, military LIC experts prefer nonmilitary solutions to military ones and, that failing, the use of friendly or covert forces to the commitment of US forces.
As yet there is no element of the Joint Staff specifically in charge of low-intensity conflict matters. But there is a component, the Joint Special Operations Agency (JSOA), that serves as the Joint Chiefs’ focal point for special operations staff actions. That agency’s mandate is to provide advice on all LIC issues and related military activities, from pertinent strategy formulation and planning to budgeting, readiness evaluation, and employment of forces.
Activated at the start of 1984, JSOA works primarily on psychological operations (PSYOP), research, development and acquisition, combating terrorism, and liaison with the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS). The agency was instrumental in launching a joint PSYOP master plan that is revitalizing military capabilities in this field through such short- and long-term enhancement programs as expansion of the Army’s PSYOP battalions and substantial equipment improvements in the Air Force’s PSYOP broadcasting aircraft, the EC-130E “Coronet Solo” assigned to the Pennsylvania National Guard. In the R&D sector, the agency helped initiate last year’s Defense Science Board analysis of special ops-related communications, mobility, and general technology issues, with special emphasis on low-intensity conflict requirements.
In the hardware arena, the joint agency is working toward greater connectivity and interoperability of all military C31 (command control communications and intelligence) systems of concern to special operations and low-intensity conflict. Included here are video compression and low data rate voice techniques to enhance the timeliness and reliability of communications.
In the field of terrorism and counterterrorism, JSOA provides liaison with the Vice Presidential Task Force Working Group on Terrorism and represents the Chiefs in efforts to sustain and enhance the Defense Department’s counterterrorism capabilities. Recent testimony by the JSOA on the status of the SOFs acknowledges that they are “below” the threshold of what would represent an “adequate” capability, but that the individual services are taking steps to correct shortfalls in both the force structure and the SOF-oriented hardware, especially so far as the ability to operate at night is concerned.
New Organizational Approaches
Current congressional and executive branch enthusiasm for reorganizing both the civilian and military components of the Defense Department extends to the LIC and SOF level and has led to tentative plans for the creation of an Assistant Secretary for Special Operations slot in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as well as formation of a DoD agency dedicated to unconventional warfare.
General Hughes explained that, as part of the proposed Pentagon reorganization, there is talk about setting up a special LIC/SOF element for the Joint Staff, appointing a “super assistant secretary,” and forming a special agency to handle these matters in a centralized fashion. The services, he emphasized, “are going to look at any reorganization idea in a balanced fashion, realizing that [the only valid measure of merit] is what is best for the country.” The issue is not “what is best for any one organization,” but how to deter terrorism or any other form of low-intensity conflict. To date, he said, the services have not yet reviewed the various proposals for organizational change in the LIC/SOF arena, but “I can say that such [an analysis] will get under way shortly. The results remain to be seen.”
A senior civilian Pentagon official who asked not to be identified by name told AIR FORCE Magazine that the notion of creating a special service for LIC/SOF has currency on Capitol Hill, but is too radical and lacks sufficient support to reach fruition. At the same time, the idea of creating a special defense agency in charge of special operations and paramilitary activities is likely to be seen by the Central Intelligence Agency as an encroachment on its covert assets and activities. CIA resistance to such an organization, he suggested, would not be assuaged even if it were patterned after the agency in charge of clandestine national space assets that, although located within the Department of the Air Force, reports primarily to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Because of these factors, the prevailing, albeit tentative, bias in the Pentagon is toward the creation of a special deputy for LIC/SOF at the US Readiness Command, he claimed. Such an arrangement could include two Deputy CINCs, one for “white and other essentially overt operations” and the other for “black order of battle and covert mercenary matters.” Subordinating unconventional warfare matters under a unified CINC not only would eliminate the need for a separate, special command but also might reduce the risk of a turf fight with the CIA, he added. The “black” deputy CINC, the official suggested, would have senior CIA staffers—along with representatives from such agencies as USIA—working with him. Embedding the unconventional warfare mission in a specific unified command rather than the “creation of a paramilitary agency” appears to be the most effective long-term solution, especially in terms of ensuring a harmonious working relationship with the CIA, he suggested.